Aug 12 2013

Nachmanides – The Soul Speaks

Published by at 8:32 am under Poetry

The Soul Speaks (from Hymn on the Fate of the Soul)
by Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman)

English version by T. Carmi

From the very beginning,
      before times long past,
      I was stored among His hidden treasures.
He had brought me forth from Nothing, but at the end of time
I shall be summoned back before the King.

My life flowed
      out of the depth of the spheres
      which gave me form and order.
Divine forces shaped me
to be treasured in the chambers of the King.

Then He shined his light
      to bring me forth
      in hidden well-springs, on the left and on the right.
He made me descend the steps leading down from
the Pool of Shelah to the garden of the King.

— from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Edited by T. Carmi

/ Photo by Crystalpyromaniac /

There are a few elements that catch my attention in today’s poem.

From the very beginning,
      before times long past,
      I was stored among His hidden treasures.
He had brought me forth from Nothing, but at the end of time
I shall be summoned back before the King.

These opening lines are interesting to me. He starts with “From the very beginning, / before times long past…” This seems to evoke not so much ancient times, but a primordial time before time begins. Yet, in this pre-time, the poet already exists: “I was stored among His hidden treasures.”

This reflects the influence of an idea that is especially important within Islam — yet a strong influence on the intellectual and philosophical world in which Rabbi Nachman lived. Before the beginning of creation, God creates Man as a spirit. In this way, humanity exists before creation and is witness to creation.

This idea seems to reflect the spiritual observation that, in deep silence, we can recall within ourselves a primordial state of being that is outside of time or prior to time. We come to recognize ourselves in our fluid essence, at rest in a great, womb-like void (“Nothing”).

From that place of great rest, we are “brought forth” into manifestation, taking on form and identity, engaging in life with all the complexities of relationship, action, and consequence. Some part of us knows we will return to that peaceful, immense, communal pool of being, that that is our true home. We wait to be called back and hope to be worthy of our welcome.

Rabbi Nachman also speaks of light–

Then He shined his light
to bring me forth…

Light is one of the primary metaphors in sacred poetry, suggesting the Divine not framed within a mental concept. For genuine mystics, this light is not a mere concept; it is directly experienced.

This sense of light is more than a brightness one might experience on a sunny afternoon. This light is perceived as being a living radiance that permeates everything, everywhere, always. This light is immediately understood to be the true source of all things, the foundation on which the physicality of the material world is built. In other words, it is the light of manifestation and self-awareness. It is through this light that we are “brought forth from Nothing,” from the great, still womb of unmanifest potential, into manifest being and self-consciousness.

Light has a particular significance within the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah. The Zohar, one of the central texts of Kabbalah, emphasizes the radiance or splendor of God beyond qualities. The “steps” and “spheres” are references to the Sephirot that form the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, through which the Eternal expresses an array of qualities that connect the transcendent with the manifest.

That final sentence — “He made me descend the steps leading down from / the Pool of Shelah to the garden of the King.” — What does that mean? This can be understood as the passage from heaven (“the Pool of Shelah”, the great, blissful “Nothing” of the first verse) to earth (“the garden of the King”). Once again, the journey of the soul’s coming into being.

For some, this notion can feel like one of separation. The soul has left the heavenly and become engaged with the physical. But the Kabbalistic vision offers us more than that. By directly witnessing our shining Origin, we begin to the see the soul as a bridgeway. By knowing the “steps” and the “spheres” of the Tree of Life, by reconnecting with one’s original state, the individual becomes a channel through which the light and hidden waters pour out into the manifest world. In this way we each can become a humble but conscious participant in the ongoing divine act of creation and harmonizing of the realms. Through us, heaven appears on earth.

Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman), Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman) poetry, Jewish poetry Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman)

Spain (1194 – 1270) Timeline

Moses ben Nachman (sometimes written Nahman/Nahmanides) lived in Spain in the 13th century, during the time when the Christian kingdoms were expanding and Muslim Spain was in retreat. He sometimes used the name Ramban (an acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman).

He was a physician and Torah scholar. As a younger man, he was fascinated by Kabbalah, which was emerging as a highly refined philosophical and mystical movement in Muslim-influenced Spain and nearby Cathar-influenced Provence.

While Catholic Christianity was reasserting itself on the Iberian Peninsula, it was not yet the brutal, xenophobic Christianity of the later Spanish Inquisition. Christian courts of Spain in this era aspired to the cultural inclusiveness once exhibited by the Cordoban Caliphate. This created an environment where Jews were among the most respected scholars and translators, and, in some cases, even rose to high government office within both Muslim and Christian courts.

Rabbi Nachman eventually rose to be the highest Jewish religious authority in Spain at the time. Although Rabbi Nachman found favor with King James I of Spain, he later ran into conflict with the Pope and was forced to flee the country. He finally settled in Palestine and helped to found several important synagogues and religious schools in the area.

More poetry by Nachmanides (Moses ben Nachman)

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Nachmanides – The Soul Speaks”

  1. michael bindelon 12 Aug 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Dear Ivan

    tku for your wonderful highly spiritual comment to this soooo deep poem
    for me its of course much more than a poem
    its his WISDOM put into those words

    blessed are those like you

    thank you for your ongoing efforts

    peace and tranquillity with you
    which comes – of course – only in the STILLNESS
    which my Sadguru SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI transmitted and influenced souls like me deeply

    tku again

    your sincerely


  2. Sunyataon 12 Aug 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Ivan, your commentary is Beautiful.
    Thank you.

  3. fotonon 13 Aug 2013 at 6:38 am

    it is a great chance to let me express by my feeling about your deep poetries , it is a mixture between philosophy and emotions , thanks for the letters from light from heaven you offer us to read it .

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